Bambury begins his show discussing this week's theft of paintings by Picasso and Mondrian from the National Gallery in Athens when thieves prompted security guards to turn off their security system by setting off a series of alarms that made the guards think the system wasn't working and shut the alarm system down. As Bambury recounts, the thieves then entered the museum in Greece and stripped three paintings from their frames; "everything was going according to plan" Bambury says until one of the thieves set off a motion sensor attracting attention of the security staff who watched them flee. [Officially the number of thieves has not been released.) One of the paintings was recovered when a thief dropped it during the escape, according to international reports.
Bambury asks Ellis what happens after a thief pulls off a successful heist that draws international attention.
Ellis: In one particular Picasso theft the chap got into a taxi in London and drove around and delivered it to the person who had asked him to steal it, so it depends entirely who you are and what your intentions are. Looking at the Greek experience recently, it was a well orchestrated theft, so they may have well have gone beyond planning the actual theft and have already worked out what they could do with the pictures.
Bambury: How does a thief monetize a painting? What is the value of something that is so very difficult to sell?
Ellis: Value is established unfortunately through the media. I say unfortunately because there is a tendency of following an art theft to try and arrive at the highest possible value because it makes for a better story. Criminals will take the highest published value and they will work anywhere between 3 to 7 or even 10% of that reported value as its black market value. Clearly if it’s a valuable painting it can still be a significant sum of money and they’ll use that as collateral or as a form of currency and it will then just be used as a way to pay for other criminal enterprises such as drugs or arms or people trafficking.
Bambury: So a painting then becomes a token of value in the larger world of organized crime?
Ellis: Exactly that. Last year … in October I recovered two Picassos in Serbia that had been stolen in Switzerland in February 2007. Now what I learned from that experience is that art is actually being used as a currency because it is easier to travel across international borders carrying a painting than it is to travel across international borders carrying a lot of money. If you’ve got money on you, the authorities are alert to money laundering and you will be questioned and you will have to justify your possession of that money. With paintings, unfortunately a lot of law enforcement are not to so familiar with the art scene, they don’t have easy access to databases of stolen art and antiques. The chances are that the criminals will be able to travel across international boundaries with a stolen work of art.
In the discussion on Day 6, Mr. Ellis goes on to dispel the myth of “Dr. No” the evil art collector hiring thieves to steal art masterpieces for his personal enjoyment. He then describes the operation to recover Munch’s The Scream, which had been stolen from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994 while authorities were distracted with securing the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. He also describes Canada’s role in the global market for stolen art.
When Bambury asks Ellis to speculate on the whereabouts of the two paintings recently stolen from the National Gallery in Greece, Ellis guesses that the "porous" borders of Greece with the Balkan countries may have provided an escape route to Montenegro or Serbia.